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New toll lanes planned for I-35E

Minnesota’s version of highway congestion pricing is coming soon to the East Metro area. At least, that’s the plan.

Minnesota’s version of highway congestion pricing is coming soon to the East Metro area. At least, that’s the plan.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is simultaneously seeking public feedback and legislative approval for a plan to insert new dynamically priced MnPASS lanes along I-35E north of downtown St. Paul, between Pennsylvania Avenue and Little Canada Road.

The new northbound and southbound lanes would be part of a five-year, $260 million corridor improvement project that began last summer. It includes construction of a new interchange at Cayuga Street near downtown and the replacement of seven bridges, starting this summer with the Maryland Avenue bridge.

Brad Larsen, MnPASS policy manager for the transportation department, says residents of the East Metro area aren’t as familiar with the MnPASS system as folks in West Metro, where priced lanes have been in place for several years in both the I-394 and I-35W corridors.

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Nonetheless, Larsen says, “people seem really open to the idea” and the authorizing legislation appears to be advancing in both houses.

Bigger strategy

Priced lanes are part of a new metro highway investment strategy developed over the last several years by MnDOT and the Metropolitan Council to stretch scarce transportation dollars and better manage traffic congestion.

The strategy also includes:

  • Building low-cost, high-benefit projects to remove bottlenecks and improve traffic flow.
  • Making more aggressive use of technology, such as message boards that warn of highway incidents and travel delays.
  • Incorporating transit improvements into highway projects.

Gone are the days of mega-highway projects. Transportation officials estimate that building enough capacity on the metro-area highway system to significantly reduce anticipated congestion would cost more than $40 billion over the next 20 years. The most optimistic outlooks for transportation revenue show that only $7 billion will be available for projects, and a majority of those funds will be dedicated to bridge replacement, maintenance and preservation projects.

“We need to get the most out of our existing system by applying an innovative and multi-modal approach to congestion,” says Arlene McCarthy, the Met Council’s transportation planning director. “We know we can’t eliminate congestion, so we’re focusing on more constructive ways to manage congestion and minimize it.”

On I-35E, MnDOT proposes to add a new, fourth lane in each direction. During peak periods — 6 to 10 a.m. and 2 to 7 p.m. — these lanes would be reserved for buses, car pools with two or more passengers, motorcycles and solo drivers with a MnPASS transponder who are willing to pay a toll. (During off-peak hours, the lanes would be open to all traffic.)

The tolls would automatically vary — ranging from 25 cents to $8, but averaging around $1.25 — depending on traffic demand. The tolls are designed not to “maximize revenue, but rather maximize traffic flow,” Larsen says.

Faster trips

The expectation is that the MnPASS lanes will mean faster, more reliable trips for Metro Transit buses that will help lure more commuters from their cars and further relieve congestion. Currently, four bus routes operate on the freeway, carrying about 1,100 passengers a day.

Map of proposed MnPASS

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The I-35 project includes new, 300-car park-and-ride lots at County Road E in Vadnais Heights and County Road 14 in Lino Lakes, as well as expanded park-and-ride facilities at Maplewood Mall.

John Siqveland, a spokesperson for Metro Transit, points to the experience with MnPASS lanes on I-35W as an example of what the I-35E project should bring.

“The 21-mile Route 467 from Lakeville to Minneapolis — a 35-minute trip — achieved near-perfect on-time performance in November and December 2011 after the completion of MnDOT’s extension of dedicated lanes in Burnsville,” he said. “Ridership on that route was up 42 percent in 2011.”

The I-35E plan received a polite reception from the small crowd that attended an open house and informational meeting last week in Vadnais Heights. Two more meetings are scheduled on Thursday — from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Securian building, 401 N. Robert St., in St. Paul and from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Headwaters Service Center, 19955 Forest Rd. N., in Forest Lake.